The Prime Minister’s plans to start sending children back to school next month has come under attack from teaching unions and some local authorities, with critics arguing it is too soon to lift the coronavirus-related lockdown restrictions.
Mr Johnson, in his address to the nation on May 10, said Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils would be the first to go back, starting on June 1 ‘at the earliest’.
His ambition, Mr Johnson said, was that secondary pupils scheduled to take exams next year would ‘get at least some time with their teachers before the holidays’.
Despite criticism of the proposals in some quarters, Mr Johnson has found an unlikely ally in three-time general election winner Mr Blair.
In an interview with BBC Newsnight on Monday evening, Mr Blair said the Government was adhering to scientific advice by preparing schools to open their doors again.
‘They’re right, I think, to be reopening the schools,’ said Mr Blair.
Boris Johnson’s plans to start sending children back to school next month has come under attack from teaching unions and some local authorities, with critics arguing it is too soon to lift the coronavirus-related lockdown restrictions
‘I don’t think they would say that they’re putting school opening above health risks. What they’re doing is basing it on the evidence, actually.
‘There are countries that have reopened parts, at least, of their school system.
‘If you look at all the best evidence and again, my institutes assembled a lot of the different data on this, it’s, especially for younger children, the risks of transmission are actually quite low.’
Union chiefs have warned teachers it will ‘not be safe’ to mark pupils’ books when schools reopen, while casting yet more doubt on the government’s plans to bring children back to primary schools next month.
Staff who are members of the UK biggest teaching union will be told to go through a 20-page checklist with their bosses before returning to work. They will only be deemed safe if there is a ‘yes’ answer to every question, say the National Education Union (NEU).
It comes just days after five former education secretaries – Labour’s Alan Johnson and Carles Clarke, plus Conservatives Nicky Morgan, Damian Hinds and Justine Greening – revealed they were all backing a phased reopening of schools.
Staff who are members of the UK biggest teaching union will be told to go through a 20-page checklist with their bosses before returning to work (pictured: Social distancing measures as a child studies on a marked table at a primary school in Worcester, May 18)
Union bosses have told members it is ‘extremely unlikely’ that primary schools will reopen on June 1 (pictured: Children of essential workers in a lesson in Worcester, May 18)
But this week a third council in England was set to defy official advice to reopen schools in June. Pupils in Bury will not return ‘while high levels of Covid-19 remain’.
Following growing opposition to the plan to reopen primaries to certain year groups from June 1, Bury council says that while high levels of the infection remain in the north west, ‘the borough will not be re-opening schools on June 1’.
What safety measures are planned to reduce coronavirus in schools?
Ministers have unveiled a raft of measures to keep pupils who do return to school safe from coronavirus.
- Classes of no more than 15 pupils
- Socially distanced desks
- Children told to only mix in small groups, with those groups not mixing with others.
- Increased and regular cleaning of schools
- Staggered lunch and break times
- Staggered arrivals and departures
- Packed lunches
- No shared classroom equipment
Unclear guidance around practical arrangements for social distancing within schools, as well as concerns over testing and tracing, and supply of PPE, were listed as other reasons for refusing to open.
Unions and the government are continuing to clash over plans to reopen primary schools by June 1. But the NEU, which has more than 450,000 members, has cast fresh doubt on the government’s plans, which were confirmed by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson over the weekend.
Union bosses have told members it is ‘extremely unlikely’ that primary schools will reopen on June 1.
In a document, named the Planning Guide for Primary Schools, seen by MailOnline, the NEU has challenged the government’s plan to use micro-groups – similar to the system used in Denmark – which will reduce the need to keep students and teachers more than two metres apart.
The NEU instead is urging strict two metre social distancing measures remain in place – as is being done in other workplaces.
The planning document also includes a 20-page safety checklist, written jointly with fellow unions, Unite, Unison and GMB, which it will urge its members to go through with bosses before they return to schools.
Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the NEU, said: ‘Our checklist incorporates and builds on the Government’s own toolkit for primary school wider opening. That is what makes our checklist rigorous.
‘It is designed for use when it is safe to open schools nationally. It sets out the standards which teachers, school staff and parents should expect to be met before the head teacher decides that the school is safe to open more widely.’
In an interview with BBC Newsnight on Monday evening, Tony Blair said the Government was adhering to scientific advice by preparing schools to open their doors again
He added: ‘Teachers and support staff will be responsible for ensuring safe practices are implemented, as young children will not be able to do so themselves. Parents would expect nothing less.’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock looked to reassure the House of Commons on Monday, telling MPs only a ‘very small’ number of children were ‘badly affected’ by Covid-19.
Mr Blair backed up the comments, telling the BBC his own institute – the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change – had gathered data to show that ‘especially for younger children, the risks of transmission are actually quite low’.
He argued that private schools had been continuing to educate their pupils, while youngsters in the state system had been given ‘no education at all’ since schools were told to shut their gates on March 20 as the coronavirus outbreak took hold.
‘Let’s be clear, the private schools will have been educating their children throughout this,’ added Mr Blair, a father of four.
‘Parts of the state system will have been. But then there are some children who will have been having no education at all. You’ve got to get the schools back.’
Union leaders remain unconvinced with the argument put forward by ministers and Mr Blair, however.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that teachers ‘haven’t yet seen the scientific underpin’ to back up the assertion that the transmission risk among pupils is low.
He has called on ministers to write to unions explaining the Government’s assessment.
During the same interview, Mr Blair also gave his approval to the way Sir Keir Starmer has been leading Labour during the pandemic since his election as leader in April.
‘It’s changed for the better, for sure, in my view,’ Mr Blair said of the current state of the party.
‘Because it’s got a serious leadership that’s already making an impact because they’re showing competence, forensic skill, in dissecting the Government.
‘I think he’s done a very good job so far and I wish him every success.’
Green light to open schools? Evidence from 22 countries on the continent suggests allowing pupils back to class again has NOT been harmful to children and teachers
by JOSH WHITE, education correspondent, for the Daily Mail
Reopening schools across Europe has not caused a spike in coronavirus cases.
Evidence from 22 EU states that have restored classes suggests little or no risk to pupils, teachers or families.
The revelation piles pressure on unions resisting plans to send younger children back from June 1. The National Education Union yesterday even claimed it was not safe for teachers to mark workbooks.
The decision to reopen schools in 22 EU states, including France (pictured) where 1.4million pupils went back to their classrooms, has not caused an increase in coronavirus cases across Europe
The 22 countries, which also include Belgium (pictured) and Germany, say that there is little or no risk to pupils, families or teachers in returning students to classrooms
But an EU meeting was told that the gradual return to school had not resulted in ‘anything negative’.
Denmark reopened primaries and nurseries a month ago and has seen infection rates continue to fall.
Norway, which is outside the EU, has taken similar action without a rise.
Around 1.4million French pupils went back to class last week and of around 40,000 schools and nurseries only 70 were closed again following virus cases.
A girl wearing a face mask is pictured using hand gel from a dispenser as she arrives to school in Austria
Schools in Denmark (pictured) have reopened primary schools and nurseries and the number of coronavirus cases are in fact decreasing
Germany have opened schools for their older children, with some even taking examinations such as this biology class in Dortmund (above)
Germany has reopened schools for older children and plans to allow younger year groups back later in the summer term.
Former prime minister Tony Blair last night backed calls for pupils to go back to school, saying some children were receiving no education at all.
Alan Smithers, a professor in education at the University of Buckingham, said: ‘The unions have been asking for evidence, and this is it.
‘So they should start cooperating fully with the Government so that our schools can open again as soon as possible.’
Schools in Belgium (pictured) have been maintaining strict social distancing guidelines in their classrooms
Labour-run Bury council yesterday became the latest local authority to reject the Government’s timetable for sending children back to class. It joins Hartlepool, Liverpool and Stockport.
Cabinet minister Oliver Dowden refused to rule out penalties for town halls that refuse to reopen schools from June 1. In other developments:
- The UK death toll rose by 160, the lowest daily increase since the lockdown began, taking the total to 34,796;
- In a blow to millions hoping to go abroad this summer, officials revealed quarantine for travellers arriving in Britain could be introduced by June;
- Health Secretary Matt Hancock expanded eligibility for tests – they are now available to all over-fives with symptoms;
- Losing your sense of taste or smell was added to the official list of symptoms amid fears cases have been missed;
- Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam said we may have to ‘learn to live with’ the virus for several years;
- There was new hope of a vaccine after early data from a jab developed by US firm Moderna showed it produced protective antibodies;
- Coronavirus outbreaks have now been reported in almost four in ten care homes in England – 5,889 in total;
- And two million self-employed workers have applied for grants worth £6billion.
Jonathan Van-Tam (pictured), the UK’s deputy chief medical officer, says we may have to live with the virus for several years
Blazenka Divjak, education minister of Croatia, which holds the rotating EU presidency, told European colleagues yesterday: ‘We haven’t heard anything negative about the reopening of schools, but it is probably too early to have final conclusions.’
She noted at the video meeting that schools had imposed ‘very high security conditions’ including smaller class sizes and very close cooperation with health ministries and epidemiological services.
She stressed the results needed ‘to be treated with caution’ as the return to normal life was in its very early stages.
UK officials say they hoped the evidence from other countries would reassure teachers.
A source at the Department for Education said: ‘We looked closely at international examples when drawing up our plans for a phased return.
‘These initial findings from European countries are encouraging and suggest that our similarly cautious approach will minimise the risk of transmission.’
The Government wants a phased reopening from June 1, with Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils going back first.
Professor Van-Tam said children were not ‘high-output transmitters’ of Covid-19.
Mr Blair told BBC Newsnight: ‘If you look at all the best evidence, and my Institute has assembled a lot of the different data on this, especially for younger children, the risks of transmission are actually quite low.
Many significant figures in Britain, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair (pictured) have asked for UK schools to reopen as some children are not receiving any education at all
‘Private schools will have been educating their children throughout this.
‘Parts of the state system will have been. But then there are some children who will have been having no education at all.’
The National Education Union yesterday urged its members to bombard head teachers with health and safety queries.
The union said schools should make it clear that ‘no marking should take place’ for health and safety reasons, while library books should be regularly sanitised.
The June 1 reopening date applies only to English schools.
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